Fledglings, Field walk and Hawkers

This season’s second swallow brood hatched earlier than last year’s and of course fledged sooner so chances of survival on the great migration begin to look better. Their departure from the nest under the eaves of the garden door deck took place the very Sunday morning we held a celebratory outdoor party, which saw some 60 – 70 family and friends in attendance. Perhaps some sixth sense told them that they better get flying now or else they’d be crowded out. Guests were later entertained to catch the parents feeding their young – beaks agape and wings fluttering – while perched on the rungs of the access ladder between roof and chimneystack. Some days, at certain times, the skies above and around us are filled with the frenetic activity of family flight schools, 30 birds or more.

The fledglings return to their nest of an evening to roost. Initially heads in and tails out. (Something of a comedy turn it has to be said). Only three could be accommodated in this fashion and we witnessed a short scrap to see who of the four would lose out. Since then the quartet have given over trying to fit back in their mud and straw cup and currently snuggle up together in a row along the supporting beam.

For one reason or another our four acre field has had hardly a visit from either Kim or myself during the summer. Southridge’s Texel tups, shorn of their fleeces, are back in residence this past two weeks, which is welcome. I followed paths they and wild animals like hare and fox have made, by fences and through the verdant foliage, getting slowly and happily soaked in the soft rain.

My delight was in seeing oaks and willows in lush leaf at the foot and a widespread dusting of yellow flowers everywhere else. Starry ground hugging Tormentil, alongside two members of the pea family; meadow vetchling and birds foot trefoil, just falling to seed. Hundreds of weak flying crane flies on the wing clinging to the long grass stems.

Some umbellifers too, standing proud in the marshy bottom among the swaying mass of bog grasses and meadowsweet. Not sure what variety these purple stemmed damp loving plants are, as seen here….Suggestions welcome!

The crags at the high end give our rough grazing land its name. Here’s the defiant rowan, displaying like a banner and already in berry, rooted in a crevice of the rock face. This vertical surface is a safe haven for tree, fern and heather while the lesser grazed slopes nearby shelter the delicate looking but tough harebell flowers from ovine grazing.

Casually lingering by the garden pond recently I got a big surprise. Came within a couple of feet of a large dragonfly, of a type I’d never seen before. Returned too late from the house with a camera as it had helicoptered off by then so here’s Ian Worsley’s fine image from the British Dragonfly and Damselfly Society’s website….A female Southern Hawker. Research tells me it prefers ponds to rivers, is particularly curious and will investigate at close quarters, is common down south (hence the name) but localised elsewhere. Using its powerful jaws to hunt prey on the wing gains this type of dragonfly the appellation of hawker. Knowing that dragonflies as a species have been around for at least 250 million years is a sobering thought. What beautiful finely engineered creatures they are with huge compound eyes, transparent two paired wings and multi directional high speed flight abilities. Awesome indeed.

Room With A View

On my first visit to the Cornerhouse, fresh (or not so fresh) from camping at friends wedding in the Lake District, I was glad to take a shower upstairs before joining the company. The glorious view I took in from the bathroom that hot August day has not changed eleven years later, here once more at the height of Summer.

No, actually the garden is much improved since then in having two of us servicing its needs, seeing it (literally) bear fruit. Apple trees by the vegetable garden out of sight to the left, plus the improved mini-meadow and creation of a wildlife pond with complimentary planting off right. Delightful to see garden birds bathing here or coming to drink. Kim’s plantswoman’s skills have gradually extended the wonderful variety of flowers and shrubs in all the borders.

The five bar wooden gate gives onto our four acre field, the Crags. The remains of a small quarry are evident. I think it likely this house (a former shepherds cottage, barns and shippen) was built back in the 1870’s with stone extracted from there. Between garden and rocks do you see that patch of tall grass heads? That’s tufted hair grass aka tussock grass, which thrives on wet, poorly drained soil. Their dense clumps of basal leaves are deceptively rough. Handled the wrong way the aligned fibre of the upper leaf can deliver a nasty cut. Yet the long round stems and seed heads appear gossamer light and graceful as they wave in the cooling breeze.

Clumps of soft rush are everywhere else. It spreads by rhizome and seed and does so very successfully, as do patches of creeping thistle. You also see stinging nettles claim space each summer ( a food plant for butterflies) colonising our garden rubbish heap, part hidden from view by roses and hawthorn. This raggedy pile usually gets put to the torch – or rather a very slow smoky incineration – when Chris the contractor comes to mow the garden meadow in August, when grasses, yellow rattle and other flowers have finally seeded.

Where our stretch of rough grazing falls away towards the burn below we’ve secured walls and fences so Southridge’s sheep can graze, keeping it from reverting to scrub. That field stonewall curving away to the left is our responsibility to maintain, not our neighbour’s. I’ve recently walked it with Jason the waller, who’ll try to get the necessary patch & repair work in hand by back end. We saw and heard the ascending skylarks that have been nesting in the Crags. The field may be pretty poor agriculturally but it undoubtedly benefits wildlife.

Beyond the valley and its sheltered wood of oak, ash, alder, willow and sycamore our northern neighbour has had perfect weather to cut then ted (turn) frequently before rowing up and baling for hay on his south facing meadow. He leaves the round bales to dry further, taking advantage of the long run of sun kissed days. Livery and the farmer’s own horses are kept in adjacent fields, grazing alongside recently shorn sheep. woodland shelters and hides the farmhouse and yard. Behind it all is an arm of the great commercial forest, England’s biggest.  You see a margin of replanted conifer and broadleaf at front, some eight years in the growing, backed by the darker mass of mature trees.

Straight ahead lies a rise of yet more rough grazing, with swathes of tall creamy meadowsweet flowering at its damp foot. In this big field the rushes are mechanically topped before they can seed and the eastern farmer’s herd of stabilizer bullocks put to graze and further slow their spread. Just discernable, threading through, is the long distance national trail. Occasional forays of walkers – short haulers and those committed to the full stretch – appear or disappear over the rise. Our neighbours in the house whose roof you see planted the deciduous wood to the right, which has added wonderfully to the picture. In contrast, those mature ash trees at the top of the slope are not in great shape, having fallen foul of die back. One has already been felled, the others, to greater and lesser degree, present as stag headed (bare branched) and will go the same way within the decade. The house and granary are of some antiquity with small windows and outside steps. At its core is a former 16th Century bastle (fortified farmhouse) and the buildings all perch above the burn in its steep sandstone gorge, curving a protective arm around.The view continues beyond; with more small farms, steep wooded valleys and rough pastureland, before being defined by the long stretch of open fell. Beyond that, unseen, the region’s big river flows from its source on the high Scottish border down to the great conurbation at its mouth.

Farming, Flowers and Flutterbys

Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man. (Vladimir Nabokov)

Our postie, John, told me an amazing story the other day. Out on his deliveries driving along Stanegate – the old Roman road that linked Vindolanda and Corbridge – he encountered its martial spirit in an unexpected way. Surprised by an odd undulating movement ahead he brought his van to a halt. What he’d witnessed was a weasel escorting her young kits across the road. The fearless jill came up to the driver’s side and sat up on her back legs, stock still, watching him with a ‘don’t you dare open that door’ look. A few seconds more, turning to check her brood were all safely across, she turned tail and vanished into the hedgerow after them.

The Texel tups have been taken off our crags after a long residence and the ewes and their fat lambs let loose to graze and fertilize the newly mown emerald green meadow over the wall. I’ll miss the rams for their utility in consuming waste green material we’d no room to compost. They were such unfussy eaters and the ready meal packages of fresh grass cuttings in particular always appealed. As soon as I got the mower out they came up to the fence, ready to snack.

Exactly a year ago our garden meadow was radiant with red poppies. This year there’s ne’er a one but instead it’s bursting with marguerite daisies. Such unexpected succession planting, with different germination patterns playing out, makes for constant interest. What will dominate, or appear for the first time, next year? We’ve never had so many yellowrattle flowering before as we have this year and that should affect future grass fertility as they seed and spread.

Our local plant nursery, operating seasonally from the old walled garden of an estate house, closed recently on the retirement of the nurseryman. We turned up to buy some interesting plants in the weekend sale. My choice was this handful of orchids which I’ve  slotted into different parts of the meadow. I’ll be watching out next year to see how they have subsequently fared.

The market town’s annual book festival is always a treat. Kim & I spent an enjoyable hour listening to James Rebanks in conversation in the exuberant surroundings of the speigeltent, pitched outside the abbey. JB comes from a long line of Lakeland farmers and his home patch of Matterdale has in recent years been quietly transformed with the help of a small army of volunteers and advisers into a model environmentally sustainable hill farm. Former canalised water courses re-aligned and allowed to wander to help prevent flood prevention further downstream in towns and villages; hedges, woods and walls restored to boost nature and restore declining native species that were once common; favouring hay over silage to restore balance with nature. Restoring mixed rotational farming practice integrating (belted galloway) cattle, (herdwick) sheep and crops to underpin and develop soil health…Lots of small actions that add up to something big and meaningful. It’s subsidy driven, and profit margins remain low. Luckily for JB he has another income source to support his wife and family of four young children – writing.

The Shepherds Life (2015) and English Pastoral (2020)have deservedly gained its author an impressive reputation. An authentic individual thinker, James Rebanks analytical insight and lived experience as husbandman and shepherd might come as a revelation to most of the 99% of the population who do not make their direct living from the land. He writes – as he spoke to us that evening – with terse lyricism, mixing anecdote with observation, recollection with revelation, disarmingly honest and prescient.

English Pastoral unfolds its powerful narrative in three parts, and in mood and tempo it’s something akin to a pastoral symphony. The first section (Nostalgia) reveals the rural world Rebanks grew up in from his birth in 1974, peppered with telling portraits of family, especially his grandfather, whose Lakeland farm he would eventually inherit. The second chapter (Progress) deals with the drastic changes brought about by the wholesale industrialisation of farming to secure a cheap food agenda, and the widespread consequences. The third section (Utopia) restores hope and explores interconnected ways back to true sustainability in food production and farming’s re-integration with nature and the wider landscape.

Another day and a late afternoon stroll up the lane to revisit sights I’d only but glimpsed from the bike earlier. Road works of recent years, resurfacing and clearing or putting in of drainage ditches has – as I suspected at the time – opened up the wayside to new plant possibilities. I stopped to admire the colour combinations of these three common grassland perenniels at the nearest passing place.

Particularly love the lavender blue flowers of the harebell. Their numbers have definitely increased along the dry poor soil margins where deep but narrow ditch meets lush grass verge. Likewise, there’s seems to be more lesser stitchwort about as they like dry meadows and grassy places too. As the name implies the folk medicine canon had a place for it as relief from the pain of a stitch. Surprised to learn that the pretty white flowers only last three days. Luckily, the plant is a prolific producer through the summer months. The delicate looking flowers (only five petals but heavily indented so appear as ten) float serenely above the ditch, reinforcing its star like imagery. Most obvious though is the frothy yellow presence of ladies bedstraw, which is another coloniser of the mini-cliff face here. A hardy perennial of grassland it gives off a subtle scent somewhere between honey and hay. Traditionally the plant was used to strew floors and stuff mattresses, as its astringent qualities deterred fleas and was thought to aid safe delivery for women in childbirth. The dense clusters of tiny yellow flowers were used in cheese making apparently as a coagulate of milk and that the original Double Gloucester owes its rich colouring to the plant!

Returning home from photographing the flowers something caught in the corner of my vision…a moth? Turned and followed its tiny form along the wayside. The fluttering creature finally alighted briefly and I managed to snatch this image before it flew off again. A butterfly. But which one? A dive in a reference book provided the answer. I’d been privileged enough to encounter a small blue. It has widespread UK distribution but is very localised, and sad to say, in serious decline. The small blue is the country’s smallest resident butterfly, whose food plant is kidney vetch and its relatives found in unimproved pastures. Colonies are often only a few dozen in numbers although it can increase to a few hundred in favourable conditions. I thought I saw another on my walk before identifying this one so we may well have a small colony in the grassland and waste places hereabouts. Let’s hope so.

Correction. Having dropped a line to charity Butterfly Conservation.org today, accompanied by the butterfly image above, I was disappointed to learn it was not a Small Blue but rather a Ringlet butterfly I’d seen. Oh well, can’t win ’em all. Lovely creature to spot anyway, and a timely reminder to check more thoroughly before publishing in future!

At Rest

This old stone ark / moored on the hump back / of the Whin Sill, is rock / is rainbow, is anchor / Buttressed against weather, / like hands arched in prayer… From ‘Throckrington Church’ by Linda France.

What do the following three outstanding individuals have in common?

William, Lord Beveridge (1879 – 1963). Liberal politician, economist & social reformer whose 1942 report laid the foundations for the post war welfare state.

Tom Sharpe (1928 – 2013). Satirical novelist and anti-apartheid activist in 1950’s South Africa. Based on his teaching experience in Cambridge, Sharpe’s darkly comic romps – the Wilt series, Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue – becamebest selling novels in the 1970’s & 80’s, and were filmed for TV.

Constance Leathart (1903 – 1993) Daughter of a wealthy Tyneside industrialist, A pioneering inter-war aviatrix, aircraft repairer; later an officer in the Air Transport Auxillary, delivering planes from factories to airfields during WW2.

All three are buried in the churchyard at Throckrington, Northumberland.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Tom Sharpe died, aged 85, at Llafranc in north-east Spain, his home for the previous 20 years. Close friend and associate Dr Montserrat Verdaguer fulfilled the author’s wish for his ashes to be placed near his father’s grave at St Aiden’s. Unfortunately this was done without permission and a consistory (ecclesiastical) court held in Newcastle found against her. The ashes – along with the author’s favourite pen, a Cuban cigar and bottle of whisky – were removed. Unsurprisingly this bizarre saga got a lot of media attention.

Beveridge was briefly MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and had family ties with the area, and his wife Janet is buried next to him. Connie Leathart, who became increasingly eccentric on retirement, moved to live at a nearby farm, where she ran a donkey sanctuary. Her grave is a simple stone, easily overlooked, with the letters CL engraved in it. The churchyard is graced on one side by a carpet of heath bedstraw which adds a glow to the ground. The church porch noticeboard displays a wonderfully worded missive from the vicar that made me smile…

‘This Church is open at all times for the curious or anyone in need of shelter, a breather, inspiration or reflection. Please close the door after you because the swallows haven’t worked out how to lift the latch to get out, and please close and bolt the gate as tups (male sheep) want to be with their mates, not stuck in the graveyard’.

St Aiden’s is one of the oldest churches in the county, dating from 1100. Sitting proudly on an outcrop of the great whin sill, it overlooks wide swathes of open pasture and woods, as well as plantations and wind farms on the far ridges. The chancel walls and its impressive arch survive. Of the medieval settlement at its foot, where a farm and host of sheds now stand, there is no sign, having been long abandoned or simply built over. Legend has it that a sailor returning home in the mid 19th century brought typhus with him, and that eradicated the already declining population of Throckrington village. Today’s parishioners are drawn from the closest clusters of hamlets, farms and an old family run estate or two.

Our exploratory ramble took us (and a number of cyclists) along a little used metalled lane through big fields of rough grazing. After a mile or so we broke away to circumnavigate Colt Crag reservoir, one of a series of interconnecting Edwardian reservoirs supplying Newcastle/Gateshead starting at the headwaters of the River Rede, just below the Scottish border at Carter Bar.

The water level at this remote and peaceful site, after a prolonged period of little rain, was decidedly low. Set in a hollow, the natural feed stream at its highest point snaked down through residual mud to the depleted still waters below. Scrub plants were establishing between stone slabs of its recently exposed apron. The stoic figure of a lone fisherman in waders, standing thigh deep in the shallow waters, was casting his line for trout.

Sheltering woodland and the sandy soil perimeter vehicle access track allow a lively array of various meadow plants to thrive, like this mix of thyme and trefoil.

Returning on a gentle amble along the gated lane to Throckrington we had our picnic on the grass verge after exploring church and grounds. Further entertained in watching the farm’s shepherd co-ordinating quad and border collies to shift a flock of sheep with lambs off on to distant broad pastures.

Mown Stalks Exhale

Cut grass lies frail / Brief is the breath / Mown stalks exhale / Long, long the death / It dies in the white hours / Of young-leafed June…(From Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Cut Grass’)

The prolonged spell of good weather in the wake of midsummer is the trigger for a wave of farming activity. Next door neighbours but one run a contracting business from their farm over the ridge, which might explain why they were sorting their own patch first this past weekend. We witnessed them out and about with their kit cutting, spreading, rowing, baling, and carrying off  grass as silage. Just prior to that the family also managed to have their flock of sheep shorn and muckspread some of those newly mown fields as well.

On Monday morning Southridge’s workhorse red tractor cut the big meadow that borders two sides of us here at the corner house. First the headlands (field boundaries) then, with turning room established, it steadily mowed the rest on a series of returning diagonals. Tuesday morning their contractor arrived in his big John Deere tractor drawing a combo tedder and rake. This machine is an unfolding wide winged setup of wheeling metal tines, drawn over the wilting sward to wuffle (spread dry) then windrow (line up) the cut grass.

The afternoon saw our man return with a round baler to draw and bind the drying grass into airtight rolls, not too loose and not too tight, before ejecting them. Southridge’s red tractor then spiked up each bale unto a flat bed trailer pulled by their other tractor that in turn hauled them off for stacking in the farmyard barn.Weather, the lie of the land dictate and ease of storage means that silage is favoured over hay in these parts as winter fodder for sheep and cattle.

I think the workers may have taken a break (along with the rest of the nation) to watch the Germany v England match live from Wembley stadium at 5pm, but they were back to finish the whole job before the light finally faded. Seeing the black & white team strips against the pristine Wembley turf put me in mind of the intermingling gulls and corvids on that far neighbours new mown fields, co-existing to feast on a bonus of worms and insects newly exposed to light.

Back here on the big meadow our resident avian families took advantage of fallen seed and vulnerable worms too, albeit on a far less industrial scale. Wheatears spotted atop the curving dry stonewall before dropping in to forage. These welcome summer migrants from Africa normally keep their distance from habitation but clearly could not resist this temptation to come in by. I was afforded a sight of their handsome form and tell tale white rump. The bird’s original common name was ‘whitearse’ but Victorian sensibility put a stop to that.

I also hope that the Curlews who nest in the meadow have had their chicks hatched and fledged by now. These iconic birds return from the coast each spring to this traditional breeding spot so I can only assume they have. Nationally the picture looks bleak as the birds summer quarters away from the coastal winter coasts and estuaries are increasingly confined to remote upland hill country. The curlew breeding population has halved over the last 25 years. This distinctive wader, with its haunting liquid call, is celebrated by local Allendale brewery as one of its many fine bottled ales while the Northumberland National Park (in which the field sits) features the curlew as its logo. 

There is one bird perhaps above all others that says ‘summer in the country’ and that for me has to be the skylark. This year their presence has been more marked than usual, which is heartening. We suspect them of nesting somewhere on the ground within our four acres of rough grazing, as I’ve mentioned before, which makes us happy as skylarks are an endangered red list species. When out on the bike I’ve flushed them from wayside cover. How wonderful it is to hear the cock bird singing his heart out as he rises high above to hold as a vibrating fixed speck in a cloudless blue sky. Truly, a sublime enchantment.  

Footnote: Clocked our neighbour going over the big field with his baler. The contractor’s wide winged machinery not able to deal with more uneven ground in non regular shaped fields. A closer shave needed. The seven round bales he managed to gather will join the rest to dry for a week before wrapping and storage. Alas, recent last couple of days rain will slow that process down.

Back on Top in June

‘That’s life, (that’s life), that’s what all the people say / You’re riding high in April, shot down in May / But I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m back on top, back on top in June’  (Frank Sinatra/That’s Life)

The open sided kitchen deck shelters a dense swag of ivy covering the wall top to bottom. Wrens normally favour it, living up to their cave dweller name (troglodytes) secretively feeding on the insects and grubs that shelter therein. This spring our green wall’s obvious inhabitants are nesters. Swallows up top and pied wagtails somewhere in the foliage below. They’ve proved the worst of neighbours. Patient and cautious wagtails with beaks full of insects have had to make carefully timed exits and entrances to avoid the ire of the swallows who screech and dive bomb them if spotted.

The swallows are seemingly still building while the wagtail chicks have already hatched and fledged. They make for a handsome sight, the avian equivalent of grey co-ordinated uniforms of traditional schools or law offices. The parents are simultaneously coaching and feeding their brood around the place. These juveniles behave more soberly than say young robins. I had to rescue one, twice, from inside the ‘poppa-dome’ netting protecting our brassicas from cabbage white butterflies.

Top of the mishap ratings are blackbirds whose adolescent fledglings can be relied upon to find ways of meeting an early demise. Their favourite is drowning in the nearest open topped water trough or tub, although they are also partial to getting fatally tangled in garden netting. We consequently abandoned using large mesh plastic filament nets for bean and pea protection, though ‘needs must when the devil drives’ as my mother used to say, and we still use the current open top reserves of rain water.  

As previously noted in these columns the corner house is off grid for water. We share a spring with the two family households up at the farm. Their cows and sheep grazing in the big spring field are thirsty consumers at this time of year, putting extra demand on the resource. Summer days see us recycling the grey water from evening baths to service an array of garden pots, boxes and beds. We’ve other reservoirs too in the shape of old wooden whiskey storage barrels tapped into downspouts to catch precious (whiskey scented) rainwater as well as those open topped empty animal feed tubs, now tucked out of sight back of the garage.

The meadow continues to develop through changing form and cast of characters. Broadcasting another tranche of yellow rattle last autumn round the perimeter has paid off handsomely in continuing to roll back the rampant grasses. As semi-parasitic plants these free seeding annuals feed off the roots of our tougher grasses and by weakening them allow other meadow species to break through.

This year we’ve been happily surprised by two newcomers. Ox-eye daisies or marguerites, that most exuberant and cheerful of wayside flowers, are flourishing. There’s one dusky purple meadow cranesbill present too and I hope it will take and spread. I’ve chopped the cow parsley before it seeded. It’ll be great to have it back next year but not in such profusion to take the meadow over if allowed to propagate at will.

In comparison It’s easy to overlook a humble plant with flowers so tiny they barely registers on the eye, registering as subtle pencil strokes of blue in the bigger picture. Changing forget-me-not has pretty five petal flowers when seen up close. The name comes from the flower’s ability to change colour from yellow to blue – not that you’d ever truly notice!

I’m intrigued that this creeping hairy perennial was not listed in the original seed mix for acid clay soils sown in the autumn of 2019. It may have been present in the original sward or has found its way in since the yellow rattle got to work. It loves disturbed ground so it could be that the perimeter harrowing I did in the previous two autumns has allowed it to establish and spread. Other bloomers in season include pink campion and the lookalike ragged robin, while sturdy dark headed plantain and tall rusty fronds of sorrel make for a lovely contrasting presence in the sea of swaying seedheads that top timothy, meadow, rye and couch grasses. It’s a joy to catch the flashing acrobatics of exuberant gold finches on their fluttering descent to bend and feast off them.

Friends have gifted irises in the past that we’ve planted in or around the pond. The deep blue ones are in danger of being choked by rogue grasses and will need weeding after they’ve finished flowering. Yellow brown streaked Holden Clough iris (bred at the nursery of the same name in the Forest of Bowland) and common yellow flag are good pond marginals, majestic in their aquatic baskets, and are looking particularly splendid this year. Their subtle shades of golden glory somewhat lost when set against a chorus line of common yellow monkey flowers behind them. These mat forming, damp loving plants originated in north America and are viewed as being an invasive species. The snapdragon like flowers, splattered with red dots, are now a common sight in gardens and the wild throughout the UK.

No sign of frogs so far but the resident adult palmate newts are breeding and the aquatic snails with their spiral shells are growing in size and number, alongside healthy population levels of various underwater insects and beetles. Distinctly shaped white flowers of water hawthorn present their faces to the sun and the miniature water lilies yellow flowers will soon be out.

The submerged mass of sheltering water weeds and oxygenators suspended below the floating plants are key to keeping these still waters cool, fresh and healthy as the days heat and their level falls. I top up with a watering can of an evening and reluctantly welcome a few grey windy days bearing waves of replenishing showers.

What a strange season for fruit trees everywhere. The generally cold wet May put paid to much glorious blossom and curtailed setting. Our espaliered trees on the south facing sheltered side of the house have come safely through, now bearing swelling fruit, while most of the free standing apple trees in the more exposed northern facing garden have no or few fruiting stems to show. Nevertheless their foliage is a healthy fresh green and growth is good so they’re likely to come back bearing fruit next year.

Quakers Hollow and Devilswater

Her heart was light, her eyes were wild / As kneeling down with her little child / She christened her bairn in the Devilswater / The black eyed brat of the devil’s daughter. / Low she laughed as she hugged it tight / Clapped its hands at the golden light / That glanced and danced on the Devilswater / To think she was once a parson’s daughter. (From ‘Devilswater’ by WW Gibson)

Old friends who’d been this way but a little while since were kind enough to repeat their rural ramble in our company. Hexhamshire, or simply The Shire, was originally a generous gift of land (some 92 square miles of it) made by Queen Ethelreda to St Wilfred to support his foundation of a priory at Hexham in 674AD. During the medieval period it was the fiefdom of the Archbishop of York, separate from Northumberland as such. The smaller modern civil parish still retains that feel of a land apart due to its relative remoteness and definable boundaries. The Shire today is the rural hinterland south of Hexham, stretching from the green belt of the Tyne valley to Hexhamshire Commons (part of the North Pennines AONB). The main landowner here in the modern era is Lord Allendale’s estate. Pretty much in the centre of this sparsely populated, deeply rural landscape of sandstone gorges, woodland and rich pasture is the village of Whitley Chapel and that’s where we started and ended our four mile ramble.

The footpath through Quakers Hollow nature reserve was a lovely surprise. Named after the late 17th century Friends meeting house that once stood on nearby chapel hill this 9 hectares of semi-natural wetland is composed of peat which acts as a giant sponge to retain permanent moisture and supports rare flora and fauna. We heard reed buntings calling and saw clumps of purple orchids in the bog. A bird hide overlooks the site and thousands of willow whips have been planted on its perimeter by a local basket weaving group for future harvesting. All credit to the enterprising community here for their sterling work since 2002 in investigating, enhancing and interpreting this precious moss and its adjacent meadows. We especially admired the three handsome Exmoor ponies, the most perfect of conservation grazers, happily fulfilling their brief.

A short while later we dropped down to the Devilswater. This stream defines the Shire in a number of subtle interconnecting ways and runs for approximately six miles from its source in the high commons to confluence with the Tyne at Dilston below Corbridge. Although peaceful now fallen trees littering the steep banks below the footbridge reminded us of the power of a Pennine stream in spate – seemingly living up to its name! Rather more prosaically the word’s etymology defines it as a variant of Douglas, derived from Brittonic (Celtic) words Dub (black) and Gless (stream). Lancastrian Queen Margaret fleeing the battle of Hexham (1464) supposedly took shelter in a cave in the valley, while Anya Seaton’s historic novel of the same name tells the story of young Lord and Lady Derwentwater of Dilston Castle and their doomed involvement in the 1715 Jacobite rising. The Hexhamshire Brewery at Dilston Mill pub further dowstream boasts a Devilswater dark beer (‘black stream’ personified) while a local folk band also bears the name.

Soon we were trekking up through the airy mature pines of Steelhall wood before dropping down again to a confluence of well beaten track way leading to a deep set ford in an ancient wood by a footbridge, below which was an iron weir with a fish run zig-zagging through it!

A place to linger and speculate about those who had defined and worn those tracks down the centuries. Later I discovered this was one of the ancient packhorse routes where the area’s lead miners brought their precious hard won ores to be smelted at nearby Dukesfield Mill. These works were once, from the late 17th to the early 19th century, the largest smelting works in the land. The mill also extracted silver from the iron ore, making it even more lucrative. 

Walking on we passed through woodland rides (clearings) and stands of coppiced (harvested) hazel, reminding us how rich a resource mixed woodlands of native species would have been to our forefathers, providing tool handles, fuel, fencing, furniture, building materials and so on.

The return leg of our ramble had the rushing Devilswater in its tree lined bed to our right and a sweep of clear felled former conifer plantation to our left. These slopes are now replanted with deciduous varieties liberally interspersed with the bright yellow flowers of broom amid a flush of bracken, birch and other colonisers of ground recently exposed.

Arriving back at the village we enjoyed a picnic outside St Helen’s parish church (rebuilt 1742). The little hill yielded a fine view over the diverse landscapes we had walked. A step inside the cool of the chapel like building revealed some very interesting windows. The most recent was one designed by our friend Bridget Jones, inspired by the life of St Cuthbert, commissioned to mark the millennium.

The other 20th Century plain leaded glass windows there are particularly eye catching in their creative simplicity. These lights are the work of Leonard Evetts (1909-1997) and are lovely memorials to parish benefactors – priest, farmer, churchwarden, and a formerWW2 WRAF radio operative – with bold stylised images referencing flowers, tractor tyres, fields, radar screen etc.

All in all a nicely varied gentle country walk, gifted by and enjoyed with old friends, discovering yet another fascinating corner of rural Northumberland.


Drifting in moonlight / the dunes sing their songs. / Wings of old battles / fly all night long. / Cry of the seagulls, / curse of the ghosts; / aches of dead warriors / scar this old coast. From ‘Song for Northumberland’ by Keith Armstrong.

Returned home from a week away at the coast sharing a holiday house with the Newcastle branch of the family in the north Northumberland village of Belford, now by-passed by the A1, but once an important C18th coaching stop on the great north road. The Belford Community Group, a registered charity, is the key to lots of contemporary activity; setting up or running village shop, museum, gym, social clubs, playground and woodland gardens. The latter particularly impressed me as I fell into conversation with one of the volunteer gardeners in a work party tending their happy acres between a housing estate and the playground. He told me that this verdant and fully accessible patch either side of the Belford burn was once a neglected blackthorn scrubland hiding an accumulated under storey of weeds and rubbish.

The villagers wanted to mark the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002 by setting up a garden. People’s diggers and chainsaws were put to work on the initial clear out before installing infrastructure of paths and banking, then the selection & replanting, of native trees, shrubs & flowers, by which time they’d attracted development funding or help in kind from the Forestry Commission, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, the EU & others to help finish the job. An inspirational story.

The Great Whin Sill is a belt of coarse dolerite igneous rock that runs across Northumberland, an undulating series of weathered ridges and hills millions of years old, largely defined for at least 2,000 years through use for defensive purposes. These heights carry the Roman Wall and Georgian military road in the south west and are topped by great fortresses on the north-east shores at Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, before stepping out to sea as Holy Island and the Farnes, where monasteries and saints cells mix with peel towers, lighthouses and wildlife havens.

We sailed on one of Billy Shiel’s numbered vessels out of Seahouses for a two hour sightseeing trip round the Farne Islands. In this time of Covid landings by the public are not currently allowed. Partly as a result Puffin numbers for last year show that their population increased because the birds have more undisturbed holes in the ground to lay their eggs in and raise greater numbers of ‘pufflings,’ as their young are rather charmingly known.

Our voyage round the island group took in (amongst other highlights) the UK’s largest colony of breeding Atlantic grey seals and close up views of the guano covered mini-cliff faces where vast numbers of guillemots outstrip the other seabirds who nest there. Along with razorbills, terns, puffins, eider they raise an acrid smell as pungent and impressive as the sight of them wheeling, slicing, diving and gliding all around us. It was disappointing this mist wrapped morning only gave limited visibility yet at the same time the restriction made for an experience as powerfully eerie and atmospheric as any ghost story.

Another day, from Bamburgh Beach, the islands could be seen clear as a bell. It was here in 1786 that experiments by London coach builder Lionel Lukin, commissioned by dynamic local clergyman and social activist, the Rev. John Sharp, saw a coble (traditional coastal fishing boat) converted into a prototype ‘unimmmergible’ lifeboat. The view reminded me too of young Grace Darling, whose gallant efforts with her lighthouse keeper father to rescue by rowboat passengers and crew of the ‘SS Forfarshire’ wrecked off the Farnes one storm lashed night in 1838 made her a national heroine. The popular RNLI museum in Bamburgh is named for Grace Darling.

Emboldened by being clad in a wet suit I slid into the swell before diving into the North Sea’s cold embrace. I love this beach, all three wide open miles of it. Especially as I’m a weak swimmer, a late learner, wary not to get out of my depth, so happy to trust to the strand’s gentle sandy slope. Immersion in such a sea, however cold or relatively brief, makes me sublimely happy and unbounded.

The beach may be busy, but this one’s big enough to cater for all holiday hungry humans, our presence muted under a huge sky, at one with the constant rumble of the beating sea. We sunbathe in our settlement in the dunes ascending to the base of the massive rock formation on which the mighty castle keeps watch. A medieval stronghold rescued and restored by the Victorian armaments magnate Lord Armstrong, whose family still own and occupy it, Bamburgh Castle has been photographed countless millions of times.

This week and next the castle immerses itself in another venerable character role as the setting for the fifth movie in the Indiana Jones franchise, starring Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I watch fascinated, in a break between playing beach cricket, as a huge crane anchored this side of the castle extends its long hydraulic reach to lift and finally, after much adjustment, position another self contained lighting rig where required, above those already in place on the walls, in readiness for the eventual shoot.

The entertainer that stole our hearts though was the busker we heard running through his versatile repertoire before we actually spotted him. A song thrush, perched on a fence at the castle’s foot, where sand dunes gave way to tarmac and the way back to the car park.

Bamburgh cannot fail to impress with that look-up-at-me and I’m-still-standing power. Dunstanburgh, by contrast, impresses with its distinctive ruined spread (at nearly 10 acres the biggest castle by area in the county). After a meal at the Jolly Fisherman pub in Craster we dutifully joined the procession of secular pilgrims following the trail over fields owned by the National Trust to the castle run by English Heritage. The trust’s tenant farmer had pastured a herd of bullocks in the big field we had to pass through which stirred things up a bit. Disorientated by so many dogs the beasts were scarily frisky for many of the visitors, who made wide berths.

The ruined fortress within its isolated enclave had an aesthetic attraction for late Georgian artists like Thomas Girtin and J M W Turner. The Victorians, more prosaically, fashioned a golf links on the opposite side. For me Dunstanburgh has a particular interest, as a former Lancaster Castle guide, because it was created by the age’s richest noble, Thomas, earl of Lancaster. Thomas was executed for rebellion in 1322 by Edward II after being captured at the battle of Boroughbridge, before reaching the safety of his newly created northern bolthole. The earl’s famous descendant, John of Gaunt, rebuilt and strengthened the castle. Interestingly it would have originally been surrounded on the landward side by three shallow lakes or meres which, apart from acting as a defensive moat, would have reflected and magnified its bulk, a signal to rival Bamburgh castle in sight up the coast that you might be higher but I’m bigger!

Summer Land and Water

The inhabitants of this county are plain, honest, and hospitable, but unpolished, and reserved in conversation. They entertain a kind of indifference for the rest of the world, owing, probably, to the good opinion they entertain of their own portion of it.  John Strachey 1737

For decades, journeying back and forth to the homeland in Devon and Cornwall I drove through Somerset on the M5 but rarely stopped. When performing in the 1980’s with the region’s touring repertory company, Orchard Theatre, we’d play venues there, at Taunton, Frome, Bridgewater and elsewhere…An overnight stop before heading off with set in tow to the next theatre or arts centre with little time to take in or get to know the county. Had a good time one term back in that same decade based at Montacute House, in the south of Somerset, working for the Young National Trust Theatre company, playing James I of England in a daily interactive performance for sixth formers in the great Elizabethan Mansion. Apart from a visit to the amazing Yeo valley organic gardens at Blagdon two years ago, I’d not lingered to uncover what else the ‘land of summer grazing’ had to offer. That’s why I so enjoyed planning and booking this week away with Kim, who likewise knew little about the place but was particularly drawn to explore the county’s fine gardens. Where better a place to be based than Wells, in the heart of this pastoral landscape, between the Mendip hills and central belt of the Somerset levels?

We usually embed ourselves out-by in the countryside when on holiday but this time opted for the comforts and conveniences of a tastefully decorated, well equipped comfortable terraced house in town (complete with garden) just five minutes walk from Wells’s magnificent cathedral and gardens. We found it a friendly traditional market town, or rather city – England’s smallest – with lots of independent shops in a variety of old buildings. Wells also yields fine views, with easy instant access on foot to the unspoilt surrounding countryside around it.

Water, pasture, hedges, ditches, orchards and churches seem to define the landscape hereabouts. The straighter the roads down on the levels – in ancient times the great marshes and lakes of Avalon – the more rolling they seem to be!

One of the highlights of our stay was a visit to Westhay Moor on the levels, an extensive spent peat works acquired by Somerset Wildlife Trust in the 1990’s. A combination of expert management and nature’s healing recourse has seen an industrial wasteland transformed into an important wetland wildlife haven, home to rare moths, mosses and sundews. Our casual meander, stopping at various hides and viewpoints, proved a revelation. It opened one’s ears and eyes to a wealth of sounds and sights…The call of the cuckoo, a brilliant flash of kingfisher, a glimpse of either a great white or a cattle egret enfolding itself into a latticework of bullrush, the nests and family flotillas of swans and coots and arching effortlessly over it all the graceful flights of wide winged marsh harriers.

We heard the unmistakeable boom of that rarest and well camouflaged of birds, the bittern. Thanks to some friendly seriously well equipped photographers met in the reserve’s hides we were able to identify the calls of otherwise unknown birds, like reed bunting and cetti’s warbler. Never seen so many house martins in one place as here, trawling open beaked through an unseen mass of insects above the reed beds and meres, seemingly indifferent to would be predators like the pair of hobby falcons also observed quartering the skies around.

Breaking out of the bedrock below the Mendips the powerful springs that give Wells its name seem to have been a natural gathering place for worship and trade from pre-history, through Roman, Saxon into Norman times when the cathedral we see today was built. Through their heyday in the middle ages the powerful and wealthy bishops of Bath & Wells harnessed these waters to irrigate produce, fashion a moated defence, erase localised flooding, power numerous mills and guarantee the town a water supply to cleanse its busy market streets.

We thoroughly enjoyed discovering this little bit of paradise on earth, all 14 glorious acres of it. An amble along the ramparts of the moated walls gives a good view of the famous resident swans that have learned to ring a bell by the gatehouse when they want feeding. A wooden footbridge gives access to the immaculately groomed sanctum of springs, sculpted by a Victorian bishop into a reflective pool that captures the glorious gothic mass of the cathedral behind it.

We were also charmed by the impressive ruins of the 13th century great hall, now interpreted as romantic open garden space; the chapel and south lawns with their great trees and contemporary under planting; the imaginative children’s play area, traditional orchard meadow, immaculate community allotments all combined in a slowly unfolding and quietly satisfying experience to make this a favourite among great gardens.  

We had a venture into contemporary aesthetics with a trip to Hauser & Wirth Somerset, at Bruton, which has become something of an arts destination. We had free pre-booked entry into its contemporary garden designed by Piet Oudolf with adjacent galleries displaying work of international artists housed in new and repurposed 19th century model farm buildings.

Those same structures also accommodate Roth bar & grill where we had a lovely laid back outdoor lunch (in this time of Covid) to celebrate Kim’s 70th birthday, along with our dear friend Michael Gee.

I’ve written about Michael before and his work in orchard conservation that earned him a well deserved British Empire Medal a few years ago. He had travelled over from home near Barnstaple to join us for a couple of days sightseeing. On his instigation we called off at a couple of outstanding Somerset churches – Croscombe and North Cadbury – but sadly Covid had caused them to close and they weren’t yet open to casual visitors. 

It would be here that I’d take away the memory of a quintessential Somerset rural setting. It’s one of cows (Friesian or Devon Ruby reds) grazing buttercup rich meadows within orchards of traditional standard apple trees. They abut lush small fields – mainly pasture or if ploughed then black peaty soil of the levels or rich red soil of the sheltered coombes – all defined by well maintained unbroken hedges dominated by masses of hawthorn in full white bloom.

Michael piloted with the OS map as I drove through a maze of lanes on the cross country trip back, via Glastonbury. Here we caught the last hour of the working day at the recently upgraded Somerset Rural Life Museum, set in the former abbey farm on the outskirts, just below the famous tor topped with the its church tower. We could view people toiling up the ridge walk to get their take of the panoramic view offered from its lofty eminence.  

We were treated to a well curated, detailed display of art and artefacts about Somerset country life in the old farmhouse, adjacent cottage and courtyard outbuildings. Their greatest treasure though has to be the Abbot of Glastonbury’s awesome great barn, built in the 1340’s, with its elaborate roof joists and stone engraved emblems of the four apostles in each gable end of its cruciform structure.  

Hestercombe is the queen of the county’s gardens, with a reputation resting on the contrasting delights of an 18th century landscape valley gardens folded into high ground at the rear of the estate’s mansion (which until 2013 housed the Somerset Fire & Rescue HQ) while out front, with views over the vale of Taunton, sits the Edwardian garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens with planting by Gertrude Jekyll.

Both of these horticultural paradises were ‘lost’ until recent times. A charitable trust now manages and continues the development of gardens and house (now home to art galleries and fundraising bookshop & gift shop) The landscape garden had been planted up in the 20th century with commercial forestry and its linking lakes silted up, with viewpoint shelters either destroyed or damaged. A massive amount of dogged hard work had to be done to restore or replace them.

For us the revived Lutyens/Jekyll terraced gardens exceeded all expectation. Clear design, marrying his use of intersecting grid lines and levels, local stone terracing and flag steps, long avenue pergola, rills and ponds with her subtle repeat planting and astute choice of plants by colour, form, texture and seasonality. A perfect match, harmonious and satisfying, and clearly hugely influential in setting a pattern for garden design elsewhere.

An unexpected attraction was the rook wood, close to the house, where the preserved remains of a concrete and brick accommodation block told the story of UK & US service personnel billeted here during WW2. Witness accounts & photographs were given moving artistic underpinning through a striking contemporary artwork from Jon England consisting of 18,000 galvanised nails & roofing felt which animated in pixel fashion a b/w photograph of a pilot in the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber.

Other treats included a morning exploring in awe and admiration, the cathedral interior followed by a walk along a section of the Mendip Way, from the Bishops palace across adjacent fields and back through the nature reserve at Kings Wood.

Walking the land was rewarding in unexpected ways too. We scaled the lone eminence of Burrow Mump topped by the gaunt remains of a ruined church. Now in the care of the National Trust this conical hill is dedicated as a war memorial to the 11,000 Somerset men who died fighting in both world wars. On another day, having picked up the key from the equally ancient Manor Farm (itself a listed building), we went inside the handsome medieval fish house where the abbot’s bailiff once lived, now marooned in rippling meadow by a long lost lake, the former rich source of eels and fish supplying Glastonbury abbey. At both these sites we were lucky enough to fall in to conversation with two very different local farmers, and learned how the levels disappear under water every winter when tides and floodwater meet in rivers and Rhynes (drainage ditches). Distant landmarks identified, like Hinckley Point nuclear power station, and we heard about the changes they’ve seen or expect to see in agriculture this century due to climate change and subsidy payment reform.

Left Wells at 8.30 & got back home in the north Tyne shortly after 5pm. Huge tailbacks on the other carriageway as far up as Gloucestershire on the M5 heading west told their own story of staycation in an England coming out of lockdown on a bank holiday weekend/half term. We too became part of that great mass migration, edging slowly upcountry to join the M6 in Birmingham, picking up speed again before crawling northwards once more by Manchester with everyone else seemingly heading for the Lakes, Dales, or the coast.

Blithe Spirit and Dead Nettles

    Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert / That from Heaven, or near it / Pourest thy full heart /In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. (From: To A Skylark by P B Shelley)

What a cold hearted wet May we’re enduring, most unfavourable after a frosty dry April. But there is always cheer and interest every spring, whatever the weather, as light and life return. One of the more cheering things has been the increased presence of skylarks. We hope they may be nesting in our field, having detected their presence by sight and sound as early as February. Numbers have been in steady decline since the late 1970’s and despite considerable research no one can say exactly why. Most experts agree though that the trend away from spring sown to autumn sown crops and the ploughing up of winter stubble and spraying off of weed species have all played a part in affecting survival rates of this most iconic of birds, celebrated in verse and music, from Chaucer to Vaughan Williams.  

My cycles along the lane are made special not just by the songs of high flying competitive male skylarks but also by sightings of common wayside wild flowers. Take this one for example, white dead nettle (Lamium Album) As the name implies it’s not the roughly similar common stinging nettle. Similar plants, with different colour flowers, are red deadnettle and yellow archangel,  and are all common plants of disturbed waste ground. WDN is a hairy perennial with square stems and has hooded white flowers in whorls much loved by mason bees and bumble bees. Each flower has a small drop of nectar at its base and the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. In herbal medicines, the plant is an astringent mainly used as a uterine tonic and to reduce excessive menstrual bleeding.

Second Covid jab means a return to Kendal. This time the town much busier, with shops open and energy and hope restored to everyday life. Coffee & bacon baguette in the market square, watching the world go by. We travel home via the A6 and get treated to some rare cross-country views. Stop off at the wonderfully stocked Larch Cottage nurseries for a bunch of plants .

Head on to near Penrith to finally get to visit Clifton Hall (usually just glimpsed from the motorway) in the care of English Heritage. Impressive tower the only remains of a Tudor fortified house on a gentle eminence now surrounded by its former farm’s modern outbuildings. Clifton was also the place where a delaying defence skirmish by Murray’s highlanders prevented Cumberland’s army catching up with Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s retreating rebel army in 1745.

Excited to see that a flurry of yellow rattle (Rhinanthus Minor) has sprung up across our roadside verge, under the shade of the copse’s willows and dry stonewall. Scarified and sown last autumn with a mixture of shade tolerant native meadow seeds these plants are pathfinders, the medal winning meadow makers, annuals that will lead a semi-parasitic existence on the grass, weakening it and making life easier for the more delicate flower varieties to flourish in its wake. Yellow rattle is named for the beak like pods that turn black after flowering and seeding itself freely. Look closely at a traditional meadow and you’ll see them there for sure.

I love taking the new Hayter lawn mower for an outing every three weeks or so. It replaces the sturdy old model whose undersides had finally rotted away after years of great service. Living up to its British racing green livery it proceeds at a steady 2 mph walk over sinuous stretch of grass that frames and connects all the garden elements of flower borders, meadow, bushes, fences, walls, trees and pond.